Raising the Bar
Development doesn't have to be a dirty word, as four East Siders have proven
In the spring of 2006, Dan Heller was working at the corner of Riverside Drive and McGavock Pike in Inglewood. The property had once been a grocery market, but had become a neighborhood eyesore, a place where drug deals went down and shady characters congregated. From the window of his home across the street, Heller witnessed the urban decay infecting the intersection. He often saw cars slowing down for the stoplight on Riverside, refusing to stop completely, and then speeding away quickly when the light changed to green. Despite the advice of his friends and many neighbors, Heller bought the abandoned building with hopes of revitalizing it. “The Saturday morning that I was taking the bars off the window, I thought I heard gunfire,” he says. “I immediately thought, ‘Oh shit, I’m making the worst mistake of my life!’ But I had a friend who was an educator in inner-city areas of Los Angeles who always said, ‘If you want to make an impact, you have to set the bar higher and expect good things.’ I took a lot of inspiration from that idea.”
Ten years later, the intersection is an exemplar of a-wing-anda- prayer urban redevelopment. The commercial properties that comprise Riverside Village have revitalized the neighborhood and served as an inspiration for other East Side neighborhood commercial centers. Although Heller doesn’t own all the properties at the intersection, his decision to raise the bar and hope for the best was the first step in transforming a dated, largely abandoned retail cluster into the crossroads of a thriving neighborhood.
As Nashville continues to lurch forward as an “It” city, the word “developer” has become an invective, evoking images of greed-powered outsiders descending on Nashville to demolish the city’s history, genericize the landscape, and get out of town quick with sacks of ill-gotten greenbacks clutched tightly in their fists. While that nefarious stereotype may be true in some cases, growth is a quality of both cancer cells and mighty sequoias. A large part of East Nashville’s success and reformation was directly the result of individuals who made investments in the neighborhood at a time when many did not value the area. While many East Siders have had a hand in this transformation, Heller, March Egerton, Mark Sanders, and Christian Paro have all built careers combining the search for profits with visions of a better tomorrow.
For Nashville native Egerton, reinventing the East Nashville landscape came after his journey to escape Nashville. Growing up in Green Hills, Egerton never set foot in East Nashville during his formative years. It was not until after he moved away from the Music City, and returned in the fall of 1997, that he discovered the appeal of the East Side.
“I was ambivalent about moving back to Nashville,” Egerton says. “I knew I didn’t want to live on the West Side, which I was very familiar with. So I started looking around. When I came over here, it reminded me of a more ragged form of the neighborhoods where I had lived in Portland and Seattle. It got me to thinking, and I ultimately ended up buying a house in Inglewood.”
Egerton returned to Nashville with the intention of trying his hand at real estate investment after witnessing the transformation of older neighborhoods in the Pacific Northwest. What he found was a buyer’s market of solid, often historic homes in neighborhoods that could be dodgy in places, but offered tremendous value for homeowners who wanted something different from the suburbs or mass-produced McMansions.
“There was lot of activity in East Nashville before I got back to town,” he says. “There was good housing stock over here, and people were starting to buy that up, but a lot of the houses were still rental property. I bought a house in Inglewood. Then I bought two on Ordway that I flipped. I learned a lot about residential real estate and then got interested in commercial.”
What Egerton began to notice was a “river crossing” culture that many people had accepted as a part of their choice to live on the East Side. Traversing the river to eat at nicer restaurants, hear live music, or shop at specialty shops was just a way of life for East Nashvillians. Despite this, the common belief was that such businesses would never succeed on the East Side.
“That seemed very odd to me,” Egerton says. “I thought there should be more new businesses because of all the people moving in and renovating homes. I started looking around at commercial properties and there were a lot sitting around derelict — even more so after the tornado.”
In early 1999, just months after the 1998 tornado wracked devastation on the East Side, Egerton purchased a cement block building at 107 S. 11th St., but rather than throwing up a “FOR LEASE” sign and waiting to see what happened, he became a prospector for potential tenants. Egerton approached the owners of established businesses he personally liked with the idea of opening new locations on the East Side. It wasn’t an easy sell, but he soon found his first commercial tenant in the Belmontbased coffee shop Bongo Java.
“Bongo needed more room for their roasting operations,” Egerton says, “but they were very ambivalent about it as a retail spot. I had to do some convincing for them to give it a try. East Nashville was enough of an island that it heightened people’s interest in new businesses and their willingness to support them. Just to be able to get a bagel at Bongo Java was a big deal.”
With his first commercial property leased, Egerton bought more unloved real estate in the 5 Points area, buildings that have subsequently become landmarks of the neighborhood — Margot's Café and Bar Bar, The Red Door Saloon, and PizzeReal. As with Bongo Java, Egerton says he was actively seeking businesses that fit his vision for the neighborhood.
“Other cities had specific neighborhoods that were thought of as great places for food,” he says, “so why couldn’t East Nashville be like that? A lot of chefs were already living here, so I tried to think of what would move it in that direction.”
Over the next several years, Egerton continued with his plan of buying commercial properties, renovating them, and looking for businesses that would appeal to specific needs or desires of the neighborhood.
“I would buy stuff, renovate it, and either sell or rent it,” he says. “I wasn’t dealing with banks much because banks were not interested in what I was doing. Everything got rolled back into something that I was working on or buying something new.”
Following that business plan, Egerton transformed such landmark locations as the Walnut Exchange building (home to Marché Artisan Foods) and the Kingston Building (No. 308 Bar and Sherwin-Williams). One of Egerton’s greater strengths was his ability to look at older buildings that often had little appeal on the surface and see the possibilities contained in old mortar and brick.
“A lot of buildings that are not super exciting are perfectly functional,” he says. “The trick was to get people to stop thinking of them as shitholes. I drove by plenty of corners eyeballing them. It often felt like I was the only one buying [commercial] property over here. When I would call someone about a vacant lot or a crapped-out building, I was the first person they’d ever heard from.”
Egerton opened a dramatic new chapter of his commercial real estate career in 2006 when he began development of seven acres on Eastland Avenue that he named “Walden.”
“There was a former nursing home on the property that was still a functional building,” Egerton says. “My first instinct was to rehab it like I had other commercial properties. As I thought it through, I saw greater opportunities even though I knew very little about new construction. That led to an overall site plan.”
The plan that Egerton developed was centered on a mixed-use development that would serve as a commercial hub for the surrounding neighborhoods. Projected to eventually include five phases of residential, commercial, and shared-common spaces, Phase I was completed in 2008, and Phase II in 2014. With such favorites as The Wild Cow, Ugly Mugs, and Two Ten Jack, Walden has become an integral part of the East Side eatery culture.
That sense of real estate development that complements and cements neighborhoods together has been one of the guiding principles for Egerton’s friend and sometimes business partner, Dan Heller. Also a native Nashvillian, Heller moved to Colorado after high school where he built a career in marketing before moving back to Middle Tennessee in 1995. A few years later, after a conversation with Egerton, Heller decided to invest in the East Side. After buying several rental properties, he moved into a house on McGavock Pike across the street from the future Riverside Village.
“When I moved into my house, where I still live, people said I was crazy,” Heller says. “I didn’t tell my parents about the neighborhood because they would have shit their pants if they had known what was going on across the street.”
Watching the Riverside-McGavock intersection from his front window, Heller decided to take matters into his own hands and purchased the corner building in partnership with Egerton (Heller eventually bought Egerton’s interest in the property). Heller soon acquired all of the adjacent properties and began transforming the corner.
“I wanted to send a visible signal to the neighborhood that something different was happening,” Heller says. “I took the bars off the windows, cleaned the buildings, painted them, and put in more lights. The physical act of brightening up the location made it less scary. I had no new tenants, but I just moved forward with turning the junk pile behind the building into a courtyard. I wanted it to be a fun place for the community. There was a real risk. I could lay out the vision for what the area could look like, but it took tenants with imagination too.”
As the changes at the corner became more apparent, Heller began to find tenants. Within two years of the bars coming off the windows, the newly christened Riverside Village was home to the Sip Café, Mitchell’s Deli, and Olive & Sinclair Chocolate Company — all businesses that would be instrumental in transforming the reputation of the neighborhood and that would eventually leave their original spaces for larger locations.
“I hate to lose great tenants,” Heller says, “but if they’re doing their job right, they’re going to outgrow the development.”
Heller continued to follow the same playbook for the other commercial properties he acquired at Riverside and McGavock. He then moved south to the intersection of Riverside and Porter Road, transforming another shady street corner into the home for Pied Piper Eatery and other businesses. While not every business that sets up shop in his buildings has succeeded, Heller applies the same rules to them all.
“The question shouldn’t be just who’s going to be paying rent?” he says. “The first and most important question should be, is this tenant right for the neighborhood? Do they fit into what the larger market will respond to? Can they execute their business plan? You have to find businesses that support the larger vision and offer some value.”
Heller’s philosophy of selecting businesses that bring value to the neighborhood and Egerton’s sharp instincts for less-than-obvious investment opportunities combined when the two friends set their sights on the Fluffo mattress factory and warehouse on Main Street.
“March has more of an imagination than I do and sees opportunities quicker than I do,” Heller says. “I had to walk through that building a dozen times before I could even entertain the idea of moving forward with it. It was a pretty terrifying, overwhelming beast. There were so many problems, I would never have attempted it on my own, but we thought the building had some value and a lot of character.”
Before construction could begin, Egerton and Heller had to navigate the daunting maze of codes and planning regulations as they laid out their plan for a dramatic reimagining of the space. They found their first potential tenant in the start-up Fat Bottom Brewing before they were certain codes would allow a brewery in that location.
“March is incredible at navigating codes,” Heller says. “We just moved forward with the faith that if we made improvements, we would get some interest. We worked with Steve Powell and Powell Architecture to block out the basic spaces. Then we prioritized what needed to be done to reimagine the building as a multitenant food and drink destination.”
Powell proved to be a particularly valuable partner in the process. Both Egerton and Heller had worked with Powell previously in the renovation of the No. 308 bar space in the Kingston Building and other projects. Powell’s sense of preservation of existing character and practical renovation was instrumental in the transformation of the Fluffo building into the complex that now houses Edley’s BBQ, Butcher & Bee, The Filling Station, Scout’s Barbershop, and Powell Architecture’s offices.
The next project for Egerton and Heller is the construction of a new office and retail complex directly behind the Fluffo building. Dubbed “The Wabash” (a nod to country music pioneer and former East Nashville resident Roy Acuff), the building will bring 40,000 square feet of office and retail space to the heart of the Main Street/Woodland corridor.
“We’re very excited about the office component,” Egerton says. “That wouldn’t have been feasible not very long ago. Being able to walk out of your office and be on Woodland Street is a lot better than being downtown or in Brentwood. And if there’s a beer garden right outside your office, that’s not the worst day of your life.”
The integration of residential, retail, food, and office space in a way that strengthens the existing neighborhood is a goal that Mark Sanders has been pursuing for over a decade in the area surrounding 11th Street and Fatherland. A native of Decatur, Ala., Sanders moved to Nashville in 1976. In 1981, he and his wife, Patty, became East Siders when they purchased their home on South 11th near Russell Street.
“We fell in love with the house and kept our blinders on about the neighborhood,” Sanders says. “People thought we were fools.”
As an accountant working for commercial real estate developers, Sanders learned about property investment firsthand. In 1986, he began working for a property management company, eventually launching his own business, S&S Property Management, in 1988. In addition to living in East Nashville, Sanders kept his business on the East Side when he purchased a house neighboring his residence and converted it into offices in 1991. Although Sanders had deep roots in the neighborhood, his entry into full-scale real estate development did not occur until 2004.
“I had a neighbor approach me about trying to do something with all the derelict property in the neighborhood,” Sanders says. “I had some development experience from my previous job. Living here and working here, I knew things were going to improve, especially after the tornado. Every time we would have a neighborhood home tour, new people would come in and buy houses, and the area was slowly changing that way. I knew getting rid of some of the blighted areas would make a difference.”
Starting with four acres of vacant property on Fatherland Street behind the Bill Martin Corner Foods store, Sanders envisioned a U-shaped residential development of eight cottages surrounding a shared courtyard. The development would fit the existing character of the neighborhood while appealing to middle- class families.
“We thought it would be easy,” Sanders says, “but no one in codes liked the idea. They just wanted us to build four duplexes. They were still stuck in the past and couldn’t see the greater vision. After we got it approved, many people began to follow the same design.”
After the completion of Fatherland Court, Sanders turned his attention to commercial property at the intersection of 11th and Fatherland. Dubbed “Martin’s Corner” after the longstanding East Nashville supermarket, the once-thriving corner had deteriorated into a neighborhood eyesore.
“There was an abandoned meat warehouse, a carburetor shop, and a beer store, along with a laundromat across the street where drug deals would go down,” Sanders says. “All the property owners were absentee landlords, and they just wanted the rent money. They didn’t really care about what happened in the neighborhood.”
As Sanders acquired property, the transformation began. First up was the construction of the 37206 Building on the northwest corner of the intersection. Completed in 2006, the three-story building combined 20 residential units with seven retail spaces. That was followed by the Sanders’ building at 1100 Fatherland that combined two restaurant spaces with three retail units.
“We’re in a historic overlay and a redevelopment district, so it was very important that the new construction at the 37206 Building match the character of the neighborhood,” Sanders says. “In the case of 1100 Fatherland, there was an existing building, but the only part worth saving was the front façade and the brick wall on the side. Everything else was collapsed and much of the wood was infested with termites.”
With three corners occupied by businesses, Sanders turned his attention to the south side of Fatherland between 11th and 10th streets. After renovating the corner building, Sanders moved down the street to create the Shoppes on Fatherland — an expansion of the concept behind another East Nashville development success story.
“We had worked with Bret MacFadyen on his business incubator, The Idea Hatchery, on Woodland Street,” he explains. “We looked at a couple of spots where we could do something similar. Then I realized it would be easy to do right here on Fatherland.”
Completed in 2012, the Shoppes on Fatherland is host to 20 small retail spaces, along with Pavilion EAST, a 3,200-squarefoot, open-air event space, located immediately behind the development. The next step was the recently completed 8,000 square feet of retail/office space located on the corner of 10th and Fatherland.
“We’ve had a lot of success stories,” Sanders says. “Two of my retail shops at 1100 Fatherland, NancyBGoods and Thrive, moved from the Shoppes on Fatherland into the larger spaces they’re in now. We had five of our tenants that were in the Shoppes move to the new locations at 10th and Fatherland because they needed bigger spaces. I’ve had other Shoppes renters move out to larger spaces elsewhere, and we’ve been able to quickly fill their old spots — starting the process over again with new businesses.”
In addition to the commercial spaces, Sanders also developed the 20 condo units that compose the MC3 development on the corner of 11th and Russell Street. In slightly over a decade, the changes Sanders has helped bring to the neighborhood are breathtaking.
“We’ve brought in 60 families and about 45 businesses into the neighborhood,” he says. “We’ve tried to build something that would appeal to different people — houses for families, one- or two-bedroom condos for younger people, and then a little more expensive and upscale housing. The retail businesses are thriving, and there’s definitely a demand for more small office space.”
Fulfilling that demand for East Side office space is a goal that Christian Paro has focused on for the last six years. A native New Yorker, Paro worked in park management for the New York municipal government for several years before moving to Nashville in the summer of 2005 to enter real estate investment.
“A friend of mine from college and I wanted to start new careers,” Paro says. “Like everyone at that time, we were trying to flip houses. We didn’t do too well. The only house we tried to flip is one on Boscobel that I’m still living in — 10 and a half years later. But that turned out to be a good thing, since I love my house.”
Parting amicably with his business partner, Paro moved his focus to buying residential property at bargain prices, making repairs and utilizing them for rental income. In 2008, he made the jump to commercial real estate with the purchase of the building at 1701 Fatherland that would become home to The Post East coffee shop in the heart of Lockeland Springs. His experience of building out property for commercial tenants soon combined with a hunch he had about the next boom for East Nashville.
“I was riding my bike down Main Street,” Paro says, “looking at the skyline and thinking how East Nashville is bordered on the east by Shelby Park. My experience with the New York City Parks Department taught me that people like living in areas with easy access to parks. I had a gut feeling that Main Street would become an important corridor and destination, possibly even overtaking 5 Points. Not long after that, I asked my real estate agent if he could find me a commercial property on Main to renovate.”
The brick office building at 625 Main St. was just what Paro wanted. Paro bought the building in late 2010 and began reworking it into a Main Street mini-kingdom for local start-ups.
“I didn’t have a firm vision at first,” Paro says. “It just evolved organically. My realtor suggested that I rent out to small businesses since the building was already divided into small office spaces, and offer short-term leases. At first I only advertised on the East Nashville listserve and put flyers in the local coffee shops. I wanted to find people with small businesses who were ready to get out of their spare bedroom and into a more professional office space, and it worked.”
Paro’s next acquisition was the 43,000-square-foot Hardaway Construction building, his next door neighbor on Main Street. Purchasing the property in December 2012, Paro undertook a $1.5 million renovation on the building, transforming it into an expansion of the model he had followed with its smaller neighbor.
“I call what we’ve created here an incidental business incubator,” Paro says. “Because of the low cost and our open door policy among tenants, our businesses often end up either doing business with each other or getting the bulk of their referrals from their neighbors.”
Renamed the “Center 615,” the building’s tenants include attorneys, stock traders, marketing firms, real estate brokers, social media marketing firms, event planners, and more. The facilities include shared meeting rooms, break rooms, and a fitness area. Event spaces are available to both tenants and outside parties. A solitary business person can start with a seat at a coworking table, move up to various size desks in common areas, and eventually into a private office.
“The idea is that as you progress and grow your business, you can stay within the community,” Paro says.
Paro acquired the third portion of Center 615, 626 Main St., in April 2014. At first, his main interest was purely aesthetic.
“The building across the street was looking worse and worse.” Paro says. “It was in a direct line of sight from my office, and I just got tired of looking at it every day. My realtor approached the owner, and we finally agreed on a price. It was in rough shape on the inside. Based on the way Main Street was progressing, I figured I’d be able to attract a restaurant tenant. It was soon after we closed on the property that I started talking to the Family Wash.”
Moving into the newly renovated space in August 2015, the beloved East Side watering hole and live music venue has had a dramatic effect on the look, culture, and nightlife along Main Street. For Paro, it’s a fulfillment of the vision he experienced while riding his bike down Main Street just six years ago.
“I had a complete selfish interest in changing the landscape of Main Street because I live four blocks away,” Paro says. “I envisioned this whole corridor from Fifth to 5 Points being a very pedestrian-friendly, tree-lined urban thoroughfare, hopefully with a mass transit artery, and I felt it was my responsibility to get it started in that direction. Being here every day and talking with people who are growing small businesses is pretty exciting. Currently we’re at 57,000 square feet with all three buildings and that’s home to about 60 small local businesses. I’m very proud of that.”
Like many of his fellow East Side-based commercial developers, Paro understands that transforming a neighborhood and city is a process of building on a foundation of history, character, and culture. It’s a viewpoint that requires respect for the past, pragmatism for the present, and faith in the future. When the uniquely American mix of commerce and opportunity is applied in equal portions, it’s a path for lasting success and pride in one’s accomplishments as opposed to the fleeting and ultimately shallow thrill of short-term profits.
“I like to think one reason I’ve been successful is that I’ve never been greedy,” Paro says. “I’ve priced my properties where they are accessible. At 626 Main, I could have built more on the property beside it, but instead the Family Wash has 13 dedicated parking spaces. It’s not a lot, but that is 13 cars that don’t have to park on the street. When you leave a little bit of room to win, then everybody wins.”